Is the wine industry a victim of status quo syndrome?

div>The frequently voiced question “who will be the new Robert Parker?” is as revealing as it’s misplaced. The people asking it overlook the fact that the wine industry survived perfectly well for 8,000 years without any critics, let alone an all-powerful one, and there’s no reason to be sure that it couldn’t get through another few millennia in a similarly deprived state, especially given the recent development of alternative forms of consumer influence such as peer recommendation. But the same could be said of supermarkets. Most of us have become so accustomed to pushing a trolley around a big store to do our weekly shopping that we forget the relative novelty of this kind of retailing. Until the 1950s, very few people outside a small number of major cities would ever have set foot in one.

The arrival of those first self-service stores was nothing short of revolutionary. Suddenly, shoppers didn’t have to reserve time in their week to get to the market before it closed, or to trek from butcher to baker to fishmonger, greengrocer and cheesemonger. 
Wine was a late arrival in these new shops. Indeed, I recall one senior British wine merchant doubting in the 1980s whether the big chains would ever be taken seriously enough by consumers to gain much of a market share. Now, however, in places where it is legal, supermarkets commonly handle three or four of every five bottles sold to be drunk at home.
That merchant was a victim of what I like to call Status Quo Syndrome (SQS): a condition that causes sufferers to think that the time and place in which they happen to exist are not only ‘normal’, but immutable. Change – even logically predictable change – takes these people by surprise. Relatively few French producers have come to terms with the introduction of Vin de France as a legal designation, for example; plenty of US distributors are struggling to comprehend the speed at which DTC – Direct to Consumer – sales are growing.
Despite the Internet and worldwide travel, the myopia associated with SQS not only prevents sufferers from looking into the future, it often stops them from seeing what is happening almost under their noses. How many Italian white wine producers are aware of the speed at which their neighbours in Austria are adopting screwcaps? How many of the Europeans and Americans who scoff at QR codes as a means of communication with consumers, notice how ubiquitous these black-and-white squares have become in China?   
Shopping over the Internet is a very different experience to walking around a supermarket – which was, in itself, a quantum leap from waiting to be served at a shop counter. Shoppers no longer browse the aisles, allowing things to catch their eyes; they either know what they are looking for, or follow recommendations. Perversely, the process is actually quite similar to the one 19th century consumers would have known, while the move to home delivery offers customers a service that the wealthy Londoners and New Yorkers of 1916 would have taken for granted.
The next evolutionary leap in retailing will, I believe, be even more dramatic.
Instead of the tedium of the shopping website, we will simply point our smartphones at the things we want and click a button, or say ‘buy’. If you think that sounds like science fiction, welcome to the ranks of SQS sufferers: that service is already on offer in the US to anyone using Amazon’s Firefly app. Users of China’s Facebook/Twitter alternative, WeChat, now buy and pay for products and services using that platform. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is not taking this lying down. People who have downloaded his Messenger app can already book KLM flights with it without the drudgery of the airline website. The process is not only speedier, but it saves the user from ticking boxes to request aisle seats or vegetarian options; the app remembers their preferences from previous transactions. Its potential for the wine business hardly needs spelling out.
I’m sure there will be plenty of wine businesses that will myopically soldier on successfully without taking any notice of these developments, just as there will be hotels that remain unthreatened by Airbnb. But the recent fall in the share value of retailers like Macy’s in the US suggests that I’m not alone in thinking that anyone who takes the survival of 20th century retailing as a given, may be in for some painful surprises.
Robert Joseph



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